by Robert Hanaford Smith, Sr. Weirs Times Contributing Writer
I have read several versions of the story about the so-called witch of New Hampton, New Hampshire and have written about her, but my curiosity concerning this reportedly reclusive and mysterious woman who lived in the 1700’s and early 1800’s led me to a search for more information about her. So I use the word “brew” here in the sense of what she brought about. She was commonly called Granny Hicks, though that was reportedly not her real name.
She lived in a house near the Pemigewasset River in a cottage which some authors claimed she built herself. Supposedly nothing was known about her family or where she came from before living in New Hampton. Her appearance, habits, and anti-social behavior , along with unusual events that took place in town led some to label this lonely woman as a witch. When the wife in a neighboring home who was asked for some yarn by Granny Hicks so she could finish darning her sock refused to comply, she thought she detected a look of revenge in Granny’s eyes. The next morning a woodchuck appeared on the neighbor’s doorstep or in the hallway of the home, depending on which version of the story you read. Anyway, there was speculation that Granny Hicks had turned herself into a woodchuck by the means of witchcraft..
Other strange events that occurred in town were blamed on the reclusive woman leading five young men of the town, members of the local militia to take action to rid New Hampton of the witch. One night, with masks covering their heads these men took axes and proceeded to destroy Granny’s house and, according to some accounts, burned it to the ground, the result being that Granny Hicks left town, but not before standing on the stump of a tree and calling out the name of each perpetrator and telling them the means by which they would die, prophesies that, according to research by Dr. Rev. A.J.Gordon were fulfilled.
My quest for several months has been to discover more about this Granny Hicks whom at least one story-teller identified as Esther Prescott Hyde. Some may prefer that the mystery about Granny Hicks remain unsolved; nevertheless, if she was indeed Esther Prescott Hyde, though I still can’t tell you much about her personal life , I can tell you where she came from, and who her relatives were. However, be advised that the unmasking of Granny Hicks opens new questions that have not been answered. Facts involving details sometimes are distorted in the retelling of stories of the past which obviously has happened in the case of Granny Hicks, or Granny Hyde, as one of those giving us the story has named her. Some have said that after her house was destroyed she left town never to be seen or heard from again. A good fairy tale ending, perhaps, but others, probably correctly, relate that Granny returned to New Hampton where she died and is buried in the Village Cemetery. Indeed, a gravestone with the inscription of Esther Prescott Hyde exists in the named cemetery, but not by itself on a tiny old rock as I expected. It is in a Prescott family lot. In beginning my search to find out more about the identity of Esther Prescott Hyde I came to a dead end because I was assuming that, because her gravestone revealed that she was the wife of John Hyde , that her maiden name was Prescott. My assumption was wrong. I discovered “The witch of New Hampton” was born as Esther Rollins, not Esther Prescott. Esther was from Epping , New Hampshire being the daughter of Thomas and Sarah Rollins, and she married John Prescott (born in 1746) of Raymond, N.H. in 1772. The couple had one child, John, who was born in December of 1774. In June of 1775 Esther Rollins Prescott’s husband responded to the call for soldiers to resist the British army and went to Bunker Hill where he died on June 17th, according to Prescott family records. Revolutionary war records list John Prescott as having died in the year 1776.
Esther Prescott, after the death of her first husband, married a John Hide (or Hyde) from Lee, N.H. I have yet to find out much information about Mr. Hyde, so I think of him as sort of a mystery man. A statement in the Prescott family history written by Perry Allen Prescott seems to indicate that he may have died in 1805; however, I have found a census record that indicates there was a John Hide who lived in New Hampton in a household containing two people over the age of 45 in the year 1810. Who was John Hide (or Hyde) and what happened to him?
The New Hampton connection of the Prescott family seems to begin with the fact Thomas Rollins, father to the future “Witch of New Hampton”, owned some land in that town. When young John Prescott, her son, married Elizabeth Nichols, daughter of Nicholas Nichols of Epping, on November 25, 1795, they moved to New Hampton. John and Elizabeth lived in a house on Main Street where John, with the help of the Nichols family members manufactured shoes and other leather goods. The couple were the parents of nine children.
When Esther Prescott Hyde moved to New Hampton is still a mystery. She received land in New Hampton as an inheritance from her father, Thomas Rollins, which she is said to have deeded over to her son, John, sometime in the early 1800’s. This was probably the land near the Pemigewasset River where Esther or Granny Hicks lived in the cottage which was destroyed by the men who were convinced she was a witch. The stories that have been told about her probably for the last 200 years would suggest that husband John Hyde was not with her in New Hampton, but we’ve already indicated that we are not sure about that. It has been told that the cottage she lived in that was destroyed was built by Esther, herself, making us wonder why her son, John Prescott, wasn’t involved in her life enough for the neighbors to know of the relationship.
More about the witch and her family next week.